DUNGANNON offenders are the least likely in Northern Ireland to be let off with an informal warning rather than dragged through the criminal justice system, a new government report has revealed.
Major disparities in how the powers of police discretion are applied have been exposed by The Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland report, which was published on Wednesday.
Among the shocking revelations are figures which show that motorists in F Policing District, which includes Dungannon and Cookstown, are seven times more likely to be punished than drivers in Ards and North Down.
In addition, troublemakers are four times more likely to get a ticking off instead of a criminal record in East Belfast than in the local district.
Figures released by the PSNI showed that only 10 so-called ‘discretionary disposals’ per 1000 people were issued in the local police district, the lowest rate in Northern Ireland, while the rate was highest in East Belfast where 41 disposals were administered per 1000 of the population.
The report highlighted a number of reasons for the disparities, which included: no clear guidance when dealing with traffic offences, variance in the volumes of offences occurring in each district, local percentage of persistent offenders, proportion of transient population in the district, existing relationship with the police in the district, and inconsistency deriving from officer judgement.
Sinn Féin MLA Bronwyn McGahan has said that justice must be administered on a consistent and equal basis.
“While we welcomed the initiative to give informal warnings rather than bring people to court for minor offences it is important that there is a consistency to the scheme”, she said.
“I am deeply disappointed that areas like East Belfast have a far higher rate of informal warnings than areas like Dungannon.
“The scheme was designed to protect people from a getting an unwanted criminal record for a very minor event but it is also crucial that the law is applied evenly and consistently.
“It may be the case that guidelines need to be drawn up as discretion can be a personal thing and lead to inconsistencies in applying the law
“I intend to raise the matter with the local PSNI Commander to see why people in Dungannon are more likely to be brought to court than other people committing the same crime from other parts of the North.”
Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland said: “Discretion is one of the most powerful tools available to police officers in Northern Ireland. It is commonplace in many jurisdictions and viewed as a valuable extension to the formal criminal justice system.
“When used in a judicious manner, discretion is an important building block in establishing police legitimacy and assists in the delivery of faster, fairer, justice for victims and offenders while freeing the courts to focus on more serious matters.
“But with great power comes great responsibility. It is therefore imperative the PSNI works to ensure individual officers throughout Northern Ireland apply discretion in an equitable, consistent manner that is in keeping with the ethos and parameters of the initiative,” said Mr McGuigan.
The Chief Inspector added that monitoring arrangements should also be put in place to prevent discretionary disposals being applied inappropriately or simply in the interest of expediency, by those officers who wish to avoid preparing a full prosecution file.
Mr McGuigan indicated the report had highlighted a decline in the number of fixed penalty notices issued by the police, but that this type of disposal would be subject to further examination in CJI’s forthcoming report on road traffic legislation.
In conclusion Mr McGuigan said: “Getting the use of discretion right can reinforce the benefits of early intervention giving offenders, particularly children and young people, an alternative to premature criminalisation.
“Getting it wrong can have the opposite effect by alienating victims, encouraging further offending and bringing the criminal justice process and respect for the law into question.”